Wake-up Call For Canterbury Museum

By Adrienne Rewi

Canterbury Museum Director Anthony Wright in the Mountfort Gallery

Thanks to earthquake strengthening carried out in the 1980s, Canterbury Museum has come through three major earthquakes and thousands of after shocks with its physical form largely intact. It’s been a different story inside, as staff has raced to tidy up general chaos and damage to collection items, each time thwarted by subsequent shakes.

“My heart went out to the team on June 13,” says Museum Director, Anthony Wright. “We had completed all the work needed to re-open on July 1 and we’d just finished inspecting all the galleries in readiness for that. We had very little breakage and only a third of the tipping over of previous quakes but it was terribly disheartening nonetheless.”

Wright says the team is now driven to achieve a September re-opening and in the meantime, they are focussing on streamlining many of their internal systems as a result of the earthquakes.

“It’s certainly been a wake-up call. Some of our processes were a little too painstaking for the modern world and while we’re still in general clean-up mode in the galleries, I suspect that the massive project of recovering and sorting the museum collection stores will be a military-like process.

“Since the first quake back in September, recovery has spurred on the streamlining of filing processes. It’s given us a new urgency and it’s cut through any doubts about how tough we needed to be on ourselves,” he says.

Two days after the 7.1 earthquake on September 4, 2010, Wright and his team entered the pitch black museum to assess damage. “It was like ‘A Night at the Museum,’ only it was real and not as much fun,” he says.

“We were greeted with complete disarray in the staff office areas, yet some of the galleries were miraculously untouched. In the Mountfort Gallery though, hundreds of precious objects in the European Decorative Arts displays had tipped over but only 15 had broken. All up in fact, through the three big quakes of September, February and June, well under 1,000 objects of those 10-15,000 on display were lost, and there are perhaps another 2,000 damaged objects in the collection stores – this in a total collection of 2.1 million objects. None of the losses were of huge value, though that said, sometimes a prosaic object is worth more to Canterbury than a million dollar item.”

Canterbury Museum Exhibitions Preparator, Chris O’Rourke with the albatross.

The museum’s collection stores have been locked down since September and the focus has been on the public collections and museum recovery.

“We’ve stabilised the collection stores so no further damage can occur. Some of the mobile storage cabinets there were very seriously damaged and it will be a military operation when we come to decant that.”

Wright says the museum computer systems and all paper records came through the quakes unscathed and the initial focus was on cleaning up the mess. In the first weeks after the September and February quakes, they were removing 1-2 skips of rubbish a day.

“It’s been a major spring cleaning task and one thing all this teaches you is, that despite the best laid plans, everything is ephemeral in the end. We’re still in recovery mode but thinking ahead, tasks like the sorting and repairing the collection stores will be a major project. From day one, everything damaged has been photographed, cross referenced to insurance material and all methodically itemised in relation to each space. It’s given us a chance to assess our filing and acquisitions systems and to consider new ways of sharpening those.”

Sumner Museum, Sumner Village

He says that as the team has gone through the process of tidying up and reinstating galleries after each earthquake, they’ve become increasingly proficient, and, “with at least a year of uncertainty ahead of us in terms of further earthquakes,” they have put new practices into place. Solid mounts have been built for many objects and all office shelves have been screwed to walls and tied back with straps. Filing cabinets are now locked at the end of every working day to prevent contents flying out and drawers damaging other objects; and mobile units within the collection stores are locked down at all times unless they are in use.

“I think it will be at least two years before damage to the collection stores is fully repaired. It’s going to be a painstaking operation and we’ll probably need outside help with that when the time comes. In the meantime, we are documenting everything we’re doing in relation to the earthquakes because there will be intense interest from other museums around the world. I suspect new standards will be developed and there’s a place for employing engineering technology to ensure everything is secure.

Cracks in Sumner Museum after the February earthquake
Demolition begins at Sumner Museum, July 2011.

Meanwhile, across town, the historic Sumner Museum is all but demolished – razed to the ground by demolition crews after the building was finally declared unsafe after the June 13 earthquakes. Built in 1907 as the former Sumner Borough Council Chambers, the demolition of the Group 3 Protected Heritage Item in the Christchurch City Plan will be a sad loss for the seaside community. The building served as council chambers until 1979 and was a repository for early archives, land deed from 1851, plus many local diaries, photos, paintings, historic artefacts and WWII memorabilia relating to the area.

For Secretary of Sumner Redcliffs Historical Society, Topsy Rule, the loss goes beyond the material. Five generations of her family have used the iconic corner building and she says the people of Sumner will feel its loss dearly.

“We’ve lost whole swathes of our built community. These were buildings that played a key role in community life and they’ll be sadly missed,” she says.

With help from USAR and the Fire Brigade though, the upstairs collection was retrieved from the building and has been in safe keeping ever since. More recently, museum staff worked closely with the demolition crew to save as much as possible from the downstairs rooms, including a 1907 time capsule.

The word ‘Museum’ one of the last reminders of the building’s former existence as demolition machinery bites through history
It was a sad day for Sumner locals when their corner museum was finally torn assunder.

“Sadly, we’ve lost some china and 23 glass display cases but the rest is stored in a large container while we search for new premises. Unfortunately, with so many Sumner buildings damaged, it’s going to be difficult but if we have to settle on a heated container for display, we will,” she says.

Director of the Air Force Museum, Therese Angelo says it is important that museums “get back into small communities as soon as possible.”

“Funding will be difficult but with Lyttelton, Sumner and Kaiapoi Museums all to be demolished, the region is going to be hit hard from a heritage point of view. Our focus here at the Air Force Museum, is working on ways we can help for the next few years – because this is a long term recovery.”

The fate of Lyttelton Museum hangs in the balance as damage after the June earthquakes is assessed.

Unscathed by the earthquakes, the Air Force Museum has opened its doors to others. It is currently storing the 25% of the Lyttelton Museum collection so far salvaged, the COCA collection, the RSA and Hebrew community collections and the Ngai Tahu whakapapa files (and some of their researchers). It is also a temporary home for the IRD, the High Court, a firm of architects and the Department of Labour.

“We have plenty of space, so we’re happy to help. People have to realise that earthquake recovery is a thing of enormous scope and there will be a real need for assistance in the years ahead. It’s a long haul task. We have to help each other.”

The upper portion of Lyttelton Museum braced after February earthquake damage.
The front entrance to Lyttelton Museum has been reduced to a jumble of bricks and iron work.

Anthony Wright says the loss of some of the region’s small museums is a tragedy.

“They’re my favourite museums. They’re so undisturbed by the rigours of professionalism; they’re so informal and you’re face-to-face with history. There’s a wonderful sense of being enveloped in a miscellany of stuff that has been allowed to run riot. They’re not censored, they’re not all tickety-boo and as a result they’re so alive and full of personality. It’s hard seeing them go.”

The opinions expressed in this blog and comments are the authors’ and may not necessarily represent the views of National Services Te Paerangi or Te Papa.

1 Comment

  1. Hello Adrienne
    A fantastically uplofting piece. I was wondering whether you would be prepared to maybe turn this or similar into a short article for Museums Australia Magazine? After coming through the floods (we featured the floods 2 issues ago as a pictoral showcase) so many of our community museums, and national institutions are having similar cleaning up tasks. It would be fantastic for another perspective. Please email me if you would be interested.
    Steph Hamilton
    Museums Australia National Office

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